Defend Truth


The art of being human in a pandemic


Charles Villa-Vicencio is professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town and a former visiting professor in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was Research Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Life is where the stork drops us – amid the mystery, intrigue and possibilities of existence. This has been the lot of all beings, reaching back some four billion years to the first living cell. Covid-19 evokes us to ponder anew our time and place in history, as well as the purpose of life.

Social planners, management scientists and political architects describe the obscurities of the modern world as a “wicked problem”. These include climate change, pandemics, political crises, health hazards and economic collapses within which even the most well-intended responses mutate into a new set of problems. The scope, complexity and consequences of Covid-19 cannot be anticipated. There is no immediate solution or future prognosis in sight.   

We are left with no place to hide. Scientists of the mind warn of an escalating contagion of anxiety and depression, ranging from a good South African gatvol, to an uncertain future. At the back of our minds is the history of past crises and extinctions, including the elimination of hominid and human species in the struggle for survival.  

But we humans are a tough breed. Since the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa some 200,000 years ago, our ancestors have adapted both physically and mentally to serious disasters. The diameter of the physical brain increased, with an estimated 86 billion neurons and synapses fuelling increased levels of curiosity, experimentation and technical skills. Commonly referred to as the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the integration of human rationality and imagination exemplifies the adaptability or placidity of humanity.  

The physical reality of the Covid-19 pandemic confronts humanity with yet another set of challenges that require new levels of scientific analysis and imagination, while recognising that the control of the disease is dependent on more than science and epidemical understanding. It requires the buy-in of sentient citizens, together with ill-informed and socially indifferent people, plus the mobilisation of people inspired by different traditional, religious and cultural influences, to live halfway decent lives. This is, arguably, a minimum requirement in the quest for a quality of life that meets the needs of people and is an incentive to young people to succeed in a radically changing world. 

Scientific data is the barometer for policy decisions and public etiquette in the Covid-19 pandemic. It has spawned school assignments in life-science subjects, and promoted public debate on social distancing and the wearing of masks, in addition to disputes on the sale of tax-generating alcohol and tobacco. This promoted debate on the existence of viruses, and the mystery of science has contributed to a public awareness of the proximity and fragility of humanity in a globalised society.  

Since the beginning of recorded debate, critical thinkers have probed the nature of ultimate and pragmatic forms of truth. Post-Enlightenment sceptics have raised troubling (sometimes irritating) questions concerning the limitations of empirical science, with Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell and others identifying the intrusion of subjectivity into the most carefully executed scientific research, arguing there is no external, value-free, God’s-eye view of cosmic order. The Danish physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, in turn, reminded scientists and philosophers: “If anybody says he can think about quantum problems without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.”

The varied responses to the pandemic by different social and economic groups constitutes a further hindrance to realising a uniformed response to the spread of the pandemic. Physical distancing is impossible and effectively ignored in informal settlements, while the suburban bourgeoisie benefit from their socio-economic status. Everyone is consciously or unconsciously ensnared in their habits and social mindsets.  It’s time to acknowledge the contextual source of our arguments and instinctive responses to the crises we face. 

Neuroscience attributes human consciousness to the physical brain, which comprises trillions of neurons and synapses. It further recognises that the natural environmental and social realities such as culture, religion and education, impact on the neurons, receptors and transmitters in the brain. This leads to a complex debate on the relationship between the physical brain and the human mind. People exposed to the science and a basic understanding of virology quite simply see, analyse and understand disease control differently to an untutored peasant or an indifferent suburban socialite. The failure to allow for this basic reality can have disastrous implications for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic as it intensifies through poverty, unemployment and the projected increase of social unrest.   

A long view of history reminds us of the inevitable danger of a blind spot associated with any single response to the crises we face. Wicked problems require multiple, fine-tuned scientific, economic and social responses, underpinned by an ethic of responsibility and care. This is bedevilled as much by dogmatic belief in God as the ‘Omnipotent Engineer’ who presides over a world that is socially unequal, as it is by anti-religious scientism that trusts science, automation and digitised control to resolve the problems of human existence. 

The genius of modern science, mathematics and computerised algorithms offer unsurpassed resources to feed the hungry and provide the metrics required to promote global reconstruction. The missing partner in this scenario is historical memory that encapsulates a set of tried and tested ethical values, often reduced to secondary importance in modernity. 

The quest for meaning and social purpose in life is embedded in the world’s great religious and philosophical and psychological reflections. It is reflected in primeval artifacts, Greek mythology, Medieval, Enlightenment, humanist and secular traditions in time-sensitive myth, folklore and memes as well as in metaphysical abstraction. These projections are both less and more than empirical fact, suggesting a sense of transcendence that has spurred, tamed and inspired human renewal since the beginning of human history. 

This level of inclusive religious and post-religious spirituality invites us to pause in silence and reflection. Science offers respite and healing, but what then? Will we seek to regain what for some was a ‘golden’ past – or find the will to imagine a new sense of being human? DM


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